The Tokyo Apartment Rental Game

After recently seeing the 2 years on my apartment rental agreement come to an end, I had to reengage in activity with my Tokyo Estate Agents– and oh how the memories of 2 years prior came flooding back, when my bank account was completely drained.

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The realities of life in Tokyo – rich or poor, Japanese or expat – is that there is very little space. So, while average rental costs may not exceed other great cities across the world, living space is typically very limited and you end up with very little for your hard-earned yen.

 I decided to stay put in my little ferroconcrete den for another 2 years for reasons that may become clearer as you read on…

 As in my home country of the UK, (real) estate agents in Japan are not the most popular organisations, and likewise, the image of the money-grabbing landlord holds true for many here in Tokyo, too.

So, you need a roof over your head: first the apartment hunting game. The majority of property owners wishing to rent out to tenants prefer to channel all the contractual and legal wrangling through the estate agents. Hence, pretty much any area of Tokyo will have a wealth of (wealthy) agents around the so-called Ekimae (station front) area.

 All display “great deals” in the shop window for what I call “ghost apartments” – ones which have always (coincidently?) just been rented out, when you enquire…

”But what about this one, Sir?” So, you are lured into the shop by the marketing hook and start to trawl through the dozens of rooms on offer.

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40,000 yen (4万)/ 250 pounds for a studio apartment, no deposit, no key money required – something is fishy – haunted, a murderer’s former abode, railway tracks running through it or simply disgusting? Don’t worry, its already unavailable anyway!

And when I talk of rooms, the Tokyo singleton on an average white-collar salary is often only able to afford the one room – a tiny single room studio apartment. Unlike in London, house sharing is also not an option in Japan’s capital, so your room is where you eat, sleep, watch TV, entertain… At least you have privacy, well, that is if your walls are not paper thin!

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Early afternoon in this dark 6 tatami mat room and the light needs to be on already!

Apartments are very often still measured using the old Japanese system of counting tatami mats. These traditional rush straw mats are, sadly, increasingly giving way to vinyl flooring or timber parquet, however they are still the way to gauge living space.

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A typical plan of a (large) apartment, showing the balcony on the left, even the 2 gas rings and sink in the kitchen (K) and each tatami mat in the 2main rooms(6畳)

Tokyo tatami mats (a little smaller than their equivalents in western Japan) are 1.76m x 88cm. A typically-sized main room for single occupancy is therefore a mere 6 ”Jo”, i.e. 6 mats, so pretty tight at just under 10 square metres! This one main room will often (but not always) have a small built in wardrobe, and your one source of light – hopefully sliding glass doors which give out onto a little balcony space (perhaps itself the size of a single mat). You certainly need to know where the sun is going to be when choosing – north facing is not a good way to go unless you want to live under artificial lighting whenever you are at home, day or night.

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Making the most of a balcony – fake ivy, astroturf and cactuses, along with a few herbs

Other areas in the apartment – the genkan; a tiny square area a little lower than the rest of the apartment floor, which has room to park 4 pairs of shoes orderly by the front door; a kitchenette with one or, if you are lucky 2 gas/ electric cooking rings; and a prefab, plastic bathroom where you can literally shower whilst on the toilet. Don’t expect to stretch out in the bath either – Japanese style is box like and deep.

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No need to worry about getting the bathroom floor wet!

What about heating? Typically a joint AC/heating unit is fixed on the wall, up by the ceiling – great in the summer but as rudimentary physics dictates, warm air rises, so not so perfect on cold winter nights in a country that lives on the floor!

So there you have it – otherwise no fittings, curtains, furniture, bedding, oven, fridge, TV or washing machine, (by the way – you may have to have that on your balcony!) Essentially, a box with little character and questionable insulation.

What other criteria are people looking at closely when apartment hunting? Aspects such as aspect (inevitably) – one worry being that your wonderful view, above the Tokyo cables and poles, may disappear if construction of a neighbouring building starts (some seemingly appear overnight here). You may soon find a towering, shadow-spewing edifice which extinguishes any natural light that you ever had.

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At least there is a view – even if not the finest!

Equally important – how far is the nearest overground or underground railway station on foot? The great majority of the millions of Tokyo commuters use what has to rank as one of the finest public transport systems in the world. Getting to your nearest train station is key in the dash to and from the workplace, and people are keen to reduce the commute in light of long working days. Too close though and your room will be shaking from 5am till past midnight every day of the year!

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2 train stations within walking distance – 7 or 8 minutes on foot, an ideal distance.

Another consideration – is the building a flimsy walled “apato” (often found in smaller and older apartment blocks)? The better option is modern robust, ferroconcrete “mansion” (a far from a country manor house), which is far better if you don’t want to hear the clicking of your neighbour’s chopsticks as they eat, let alone any nocturnal activity.

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The so called “designer’s mansion” – sturdy, functional and coolly expensive

Oh, and of course, there is cost to consider! In Japan, the process does not simply involve a deposit payment, your first month’s rent and you’re set. Other quite substantial costs are incurred depending on the landlord’s decision on how much reikin – (key money) to demand. This often irks the foreign tenant in Japan, as it seems to serve essentially a way of saying “thank you, almighty landlord for allowing me to pay you most of my salary for a dingy box provided with gas water and electricity for the next 2 years”. 2 months’ of deposit is quite common, and this is often non-returnable, no matter how spotless you leave a dwelling on vacating it. A guarantor company may even be required, which essentially covers your missing rent if you decide to make a run for it – another month’s rent. Oh, and of course, there is the friendly agent’s fee – take a month’s worth why don’t you?

 

So let’s break it down using a tiny apartment example to really emphasize what many single Tokyoites require to secure 6 tatami mat place, an hour by train from the (huge) central Tokyo area. Let’s assume a modest 80,000yen (500 pounds) rent per month. Initial costs to get a contract signed, may work out as expensive as follows:

 

2 month’s rent upfront

2 month’s deposit

1 month’s reikin (thank you/key money)

1 month to a guarantor company

1 month to the agent

Add in a little change for insurance payments and you are possibly heading towards a figure of 600,000 (around 4000pounds) to be paid in order to get a rental agreement signed. And remember, this is for a box of around 20 square metres, which you can do very little to – no redecorating, no car, no motorbike, maybe even no bicycles (where are you going to park it – on your bed?) no pets, no musical instruments, no life..?

I hasten to add that I have decided to sacrifice a large proportion of my salary to actually have a 2nd room to live in – an excess indeed but living out of hotel rooms for a fair part of the year, my need for more than one unit within which to exist is very important for my sanity. The sacrifice is well worth it and having just paid my friendly agent an extra month’s rent to re-sign the contract for another 2 years, I won’t be moving for a while.

 

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Yes, this was the money I handed over to the estate agent in order to simply secure a rental agreement!

Sacrifices, sacrifices, but of course, I have all the attractions of one of the most bedazzling cities on the planet on my doorstep. That’s another story, but I say, who needs space when you have Tokyo?!

Why Wi-Fi in Japan?

Japan is a leader in world tecnology. Everyone knows about the Bullet Train, hi-tech toilets, interesting gadgets and Japan also has super fast internet speeds as pretty much standard. However, this hi-tech country has not been quite as forward thinking in terms of its Wi-fi services with many hotels still offering internet services through LAN cables. Things are changing though, with some cities providing a free service….but this is by no means standard at the moment.
If you want to stay connected in Japan, what’s the best way to do it?

PuruPuru

When I travelled to Japan recently, I got myself a Puru Puru Emobile Wi-fi device. I received the device  in a nice little pack at my first hotel and never looked back. I stayed connected just about everywhere.

Puru puru kit

In the old tea district of Kanazawa…

Kanazawa Puru On the Shinkansen…

Shikansen PuruOn top of Tokyo…

Puru Puru above Tokyo

On a small island…

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and on a beach, on an even smaller, small Okinawan island…although there were parts of the island it didn’t work on…

AkajimaIn general, it worked pretty much everywhere. Whether it was 35 floors up or underground on the subway, the signal was pretty much perfect.

It was not incredibly cheap, but was a whole lot cheaper than using roaming Wi-fi on my phone. I needed to stay in contact with work and family and Puru Puru was perfect…it also allowed me to show off to friends back in the UK as I posted pics  to Facebook and Twitter.

At the end of the trip, I just put it back in the provided envelope and put it in the post box, before I checked-in for my flight home. Easy.

Sometimes it’s not the destination but the journey

If you’re travelling between Matsumoto and Takayama (as many of our customers do) there are a couple of ways to make the journey, but my number one recommendation would be to take the highway bus through the Japan Alps.

I heard the journey was stunning, but nothing could have prepared me for how breathtakingly beautiful it would be!

As the bus trundles along twisting mountain roads (sometimes precariously close to the edge!), lush green mountain ranges dominate the skyline, with villages dotting the valleys below. Clear waterfalls, lakes and streams punctuate the landscape, as the bus carefully waits on a mountain edge for an oncoming vehicle to pass by, and between the mountains rice paddies wait patiently.

The journey is simple to make, and one to be enjoyed. Just sit back, relax, and keep your camera at the ready!

The view when travelling by bus from Matsumoto to TakayamaThe view when travelling by bus from Matsumoto to TakayamaThe view when travelling by bus from Matsumoto to TakayamaThe view when travelling by bus from Matsumoto to Takayama

 

11 Amazing things you probably never knew about sumo wrestling

Everyone thinks they know what sumo wrestling is. It’s about big fat guys slamming into each other, right?

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Well, yes and no. Sumo may seem comical to you and me, but it is actually a very serious business – there is an awful lot more to sumo wrestling than most outsiders ever realise.

It wasn’t until I attended a sumo tournament in Osaka earlier this year that I began to realise just how fascinating Japan’s national sport really is. Here are a few of the amazing things I learnt about sumo – I hope they will encourage you to go to go and see a tournament for yourself!

 

1. Sumo is a religious ritual

Compared with most sports in the world today, sumo originated a heck of a long time ago. About 1,500 years, in fact. From the very beginning it was entwined with Shinto ritual, when it was performed at shrines to ensure a bountiful harvest and to honour the spirits – known as kami.

Sumo wrestlers throw salt before a match to purify the ring

Sumo wrestlers throw salt before a match to purify the ring

Sumo is still very closely associated with its religious origins, and Shinto principles continue to govern the everyday life of today’s sumo wrestlers. Each of the ring-entering ceremonies is a Shinto purification ritual, and every newly promoted yokozuna (the highest rank in sumo) performs his first ring-entering ceremony at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. The canopy that hangs over the ring is modelled after the roof of a Shinto shrine, indicating that the ring itself is a holy place.

Ring-entering ceremony at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

Ring-entering ceremony at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

 

2. The rules of the match

A sumo match doesn’t start until both wrestlers have placed both hands on the ground at the same time. This leads to quite a lot of fannying about whilst each wrestler tries to psyche the other out, pretending to put his hand down and then getting back up again.

Once they finally do begin, it is very rare for sumo bouts to last longer than a few seconds – although occasionally they can up to four minutes. This means that the action is very fast-paced and exciting. A match ends when one of the wrestlers is either thrown out of the ring, or if any part of his body apart from the soles of his feet touches the ground.

The following video of a sumo match (plus superb commentary, it has to be said) is a great example of just how long it takes for a bout to begin:

 

Interestingly, the match can also end if one of the wrestlers loses his mawashi, or loincloth – in which case the de-loinclothed wrestler is disqualified. More interestingly still, this rule was only adopted after Japan began adopting European (read: prudish) attitudes toward nudity.

This outcome is very rare in sumo, but a wardrobe malfunction did occur during a match in May 2000, when the unfortunate wrestler Asanokiri exposed himself and was disqualified immediately.

 

3. Sumo life is really, really hard.

I once met a retired sumo wrestler who ran a chanko nabe restaurant in Hakuba. He was very keen to talk about his life as a rikishi (wrestler), but when I asked him if he enjoyed it – if being a sumo wrestler was fun – he looked at me as though I’d just spat in his food. Now I understand why.

It would be easy to assume from their famously substantial girth that wrestlers live a life of excess outside their training schedule. In reality, sumo wrestlers’ lives are possibly the most rigidly regimented and disciplined of any athletes in the world, and life in a sumo stable is incredibly hard.

The sumobeya, or ‘stable’, is where the wrestlers live, eat, train and sleep throughout their career – unless they get married, in which case they are allowed to live in an independent dwelling. An average stable will contain around 15 wrestlers, and is arranged according to a strict hierarchy.

Morning practice at a sumobeya

Morning practice at a sumobeya

Life is hardest for the lower ranked wrestlers, who are expected to get up earliest and cook, clean, serve food and generally wait on the higher ranked wrestlers. They even have to bathe last after training, and get last pick at dinner time – after their more senior peers have gobbled all the choice morsels!

If this sounds hard, it gets even harder. It is a fact of sumo life that the younger, inexperienced wrestlers endure systematic hazing and physical punishment in order to toughen them up. This is part and parcel of sumo culture and something that young wrestlers know to expect, but it can sometimes go too far – resulting in injury and very rare cases even in death.

Hakuho, a very popular Mongolian-born sumo champion, has spoken out before about the brutality of life as a young wrestler in training – you can read some of his comments here.

 

4. Sumo wrestlers haven’t always been fat

In fact, it was only very recently in the history of sumo that the wrestlers developed the chubbiness they are now famous for. Since there are no weight divisions in professional sumo, every wrestler basically just wants to get as big as humanly possible so that he can use his weight in the ring. It wasn’t until well into the twentieth century that the modern image of the whale-like sumo wrestler really emerged – with earlier wrestlers typically much more wiry and muscular.

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A famous exception to the general fatness is Takanoyama Shuntaro, known as the “Skinny Sumo”, a Czech wrestler distinctive for his diminutive size. Despite being comparatively minuscule, Takanoyama has had impressive success in the rankings, reaching the makuuchi division in 2011. Read more about him here.

Takanoyama Shuntaro: "The Skinny Sumo"

Takanoyama Shuntaro: “The Skinny Sumo”

If you’ve ever wondered just how modern sumo get so fat, it’s all thanks to something called chanko nabe. This is a special kind of (delicious) hotpot packed with meat, veggies and noodles that is specifically associated with sumo wrestlers in Japan. This alone doesn’t do the trick – wrestlers have a special routine of exercising on an empty stomach and sleeping after eating to help turn the calories they consume (purportedly up to 10,000 per day) into bulk.

Unfortunately this increase in weight, combined with a high consumption of alcohol, means that modern sumo wrestlers’ life expectancy is more than ten years shorter than that of the average Japanese male.

 

5. Sumo wrestlers aren’t allowed to drive cars

 It sounds absurd, but this is actually true. After a serious car accident involving a sumo wrestler, the Sumo Association banned wrestlers from driving their own cars. Just ‘cus they can, I guess.

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Perhaps that’s why this guy looks so fed up.

 

6. The last night of a sumo tournament is called the ‘pleasure of a thousand autumns’

This rather poetic epithet echoes the words of 14th-15th century playwright Zeami Motokiyo, and is meant to convey the excitement of the decisive bouts and the celebration of the victor – who receives all kinds of elaborate prizes for his success. And a fat wad of cash, of course.

 

7. Sumo referees live on borrowed time

 Sumo referees, or gyoji, are as interesting as the wrestlers. Like the wrestlers, they enter the world of sumo at a young age (about sixteen) and remain in their profession until they retire. The traditional clothing they wear in the ring is strictly graded according to rank, and as they progress up the ranks they earn honorific names by which they become known. The top ranked gyoji (the equivalent of yokozuna for wrestlers) takes the name Kimura Shonosuke but, unlike the rank of yokozuna, it can only be held by one person at any one time.

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Perhaps most interestingly, the gyoji also carries a sword, or tanto, of about six to twelve inches in length. The significance of the sword is to show that the gyoji understands the seriousness of the decisions he has to make – and is prepared to commit seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment) if he makes a bad decision!

Talk about pressure. Thankfully, in these cases today the gyoji usually just submits his resignation papers instead as a gesture of contrition. In most cases the gesture is just that, and the erring gyoji’s resignation is very rarely accepted.

Try as I might, I can’t find out when (or if) a gyoji has ever actually committed seppuku as the result of a mistake – if anyone can tell me, please do!

 

8. Sumo wrestlers have to wear traditional clothes

 In accordance with the strict rules governing their lives, sumo wrestlers aren’t even allowed to choose their own clothes. As soon as they join a stable they are expected to grow their hair in order to form a topknot, or chonmage, similar to the samurai hairstyles of the Edo Period. They are expected to wear this hairstyle and traditional dress at all times when out in public – which means that sumo wrestlers are pretty easy to spot on the subway! (That and the fact that they’re easily ten times the size of anyone else).

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Not only must they wear traditional dress, but the specifics of that dress is also closely controlled. The less experienced wrestlers must wear lower-quality, thin yukata (a cotton robe) and geta (wooden sandals) even in winter, whilst higher ranked wrestlers can wear increasingly swanky robes and even – shock! horror! – get to choose their own!

 

9. They’re not even allowed to behave how they like

 In addition to the strict routine governing their training schedule, sumo wrestlers are even expected to control their demeanour and personality in public. Rules delineate that when out and about, wrestlers must be self-effacing and softly spoken, and during tournaments they should refrain from showing joy at winning or disappointment at losing. No amateur dramatics or self-congratulatory gloating here, and quite right too.

 

10. Only one foreigner at a time, please!

Sumo stables were once allowed to recruited as many foreign wrestlers as they like. Then, after one stable recruited six Mongolians at once, there was a mass gaijin-induced panic, and today stables are only allowed to have one foreign wrestler (defined as somebody born outside Japan) at any one time.

These foreign wrestlers are expected to speak Japanese, and must be well-versed in Japanese culture – meaning that foreign sumo face all the same challenges that Japanese sumo do, but with the added anxiety of having to learn to live and breathe like a Japanese. And that, my friends, is no mean feat – as you can read a little more about here.

 

Akebono Taro, born Chad Haaheo Rowan, became the first ever foreign-born sumo grand champion in 1993.

Akebono Taro, born Chad Haaheo Rowan, became the first ever foreign-born sumo grand champion in 1993. He is a native of Hawaii.

11. Women can’t be sumo wrestlers

 It is a sad fact that men’s sports are almost always more popular than women’s (except perhaps beach volleyball) – but there aren’t many sports from which women are actually forbidden from participating. Sumo, however, is one of them – the Sumo Association doesn’t even allow women to enter the sumo ring, as it is considered a violation of the purity of the ring.

This caused a bit of an issue when there was a female Governor of Osaka – Fusae Ohta, governor from 2000 – 2008. The Governor traditionally presents the Governor’s Prize in the ring at the end of the tournament, but obviously this is a bit tricky when the Governor is banned from the ring. Ohta wasn’t all too impressed by this ruling, and she repeatedly challenged the Sumo Association to allow her to fulfil her traditional role as Governor. She was repeatedly turned down until she eventually stepped down from office.

It wasn’t always the case that sumo was so hostile to women, however, and as early as the 18th century there was a form of female sumo commonly performed in some areas of Japan. Most of the time this was just a form of entertainment, but in some areas of Japan female sumo did have a serious role in Shinto rituals. Today it is prohibited from taking place in anything but an amateur setting.

Female sumo wrestlers

Female sumo wrestlers

So there you have it. The next time you’re tempted to laugh a sumo wrestler’s man boobs, just remember that those wobbly abs and thunder thighs conceal an incredible discipline the likes of which you or I can hardly imagine.

Sumo is a fascinating sport with an uncertain future, as the harsh lifestyle makes it more and more difficult to attract new recruits. I would urge anyone visiting Japan to go to see some if they can – we can arrange tickets to sumo tournaments and visits to watch morning training at a sumo stable in Tokyo. 

Mount Fuji Gallery

Back at the beginning of the Mt Fuji climbing season (Jul 1 – Sep 1), we asked our customers to post their own pictures of the impressive mountain.We got a great response and some great photos from our UK, US and Australian travellers – thanks very much! We have also posted these on the InsideJapan Tours Facebook so take a look there and vote for your favourites.

 

Mount Fuji Gallery

Hazel Wilson
“Taken through the window of the Shinkansen as we sped towards Kyoto 3 years ago”

Mount Fuji Gallery

Ali Muskett
A surreal shot of Fuji from the nearby Safari Park (hence the elephant). IJT team member, Ali, is not allowed to win the prize, but we thought it was worth putting this one up.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Matthew Young
Mt. Fuji in Autumn from Misaka Pass

Mount Fuji Gallery

Alison Sandlands
…and her husband found a great viewing spot in Hakone.

Mount Fuji

Louise Marston
Fuji from an alternative angle
“Did go to Hakone on first IJT trip to Japan in 2010, but it was hazy. However British Airways obliged on the way home”

Mount Fuji Gallery

Richard Hanson
“Mt. Fuji from seen from Oishi park across Lake Kawaguchi-ko on a cold winter’s morning.” Taken on tour in 2013.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Andy Potter
Spectacular photo of Fuji in the mist.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Ed and Dot Jaasma
Love this shot of Fuji in crystal clear skies, taken on their tour back in 2008.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Dirk
A perfectly framed shot of the great snowy peak .

Mount Fuji Gallery

Jim Cripps
Taken from the hotel room in Tokyo during our 2012 ‘Japan Unmasked’ tour.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Harry Bossert
“The day before my Inside Japan tour started, I went up the Skytree first thing in the morning and was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Mt Fuji in the distance…I never got to see it up close though, I’ll have to come back one day to do that.”

Mount Fuji Gallery

Gary McTeer
“My sister and I completed Japan Unmasked in November 2013 (Tyler was the tour guide). The day before the tour started, we made a day trip to Hakone, we were very lucky with the weather”

Mount Fuji Gallery

Grace Marquez
This was taken from the Shinkansen on her way back to Tokyo whilst doing a ‘Price Cruncher’ trip in January this year.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Graham Winkles
Fuji looking exceptionally peaceful last November.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Jamie
Still some mist lingering on the Ochudo Trail up the mountain.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Julie and Scott
On the way to the top of Fuji in 2012.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Sara Newman
“My Mt Fuji photo taken during the Spring Elegance Tour in March/April 2012. This photo was taken whilst I was on the Bullet Train to Hakone. Miss Japan so much”.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Kirsten Adele Faulkner
Another nice Fuji shot

Mount Fuji Gallery

Kirsty Wells
“This photo was taken from the sumit of Mt Tenjo in Kawaguchiko. In the foreground on the left of the photo you can see the red Eejanaika rollercoaster at Fuji-Q Highland theme park”.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Rob Harris
Taken from the Shinkansen heading back to Tokyo on the Tokkaido Trail tour in November ’12.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Jessica Collins
“We saw Fujisan while riding the cable car to the observatory. We were on the Tokaido Trail tour – One of the best trips of my life”.

Mount Fuji Gallery

Tingo Sudjai
A Beautiful photo of his daughter celebrating in front of Fuji!

Mount Fuji Gallery

Carol Fraser
“We were very, very lucky to her on many occasions on our tour Nov/Dec 2013 but this is one of my favourite views from Owakudani.” -

Wow. Thanks for these. Doesn’t matter how many times I see this mountain, I am always impressed by her. Who’s going to win the prizes?

Taking part in a Japanese festival

Japanese festivals – matsuri – are an important part of life in Japan. You will find them in every region of the country during every season of the year. But the best time for catching matsuri is undoubtedly in summer, when festivals are so plentiful that it’s not uncommon to come across them by chance as you travel through the country. Even in Tokyo, a haven for fashion trendsetting, young people are seen on the underground heading off to fireworks festivals and other matsuri in yukata, a sort of light cotton kimono. Yet amongst the thousands of matsuri, there a handful that stand out among the rest. One such matsuri is the 350 year old Fukagawa Matsuri.

Fukagawa Matsuri from above

The great Fukagawa Matsuri!

Once every three years this huge water throwing festival is held in downtown Tokyo. Over 100,000 people gather to watch as 53 mikoshi (portable shrines) weighing from around 2 tons to 4.5 tons are boisterously carried 8 kilometers through local neighborhoods on the shoulders of men and women in traditional costume. This alone would be a site worth coming to Japan for but what makes this festival particularly special is the fact that water is being thrown on to the shrines as they slowly move through Tokyo’s streets. While some of this comes in the form of children with buckets and water pistols, the fire department also joins in at tens of locations to dowse the participants with fire hoses!

Our mikoshi being "cleansed" by some of Tokyo's finest!

Our mikoshi being “cleansed” by some of Tokyo’s finest!

Here is a brief description of what it is like to participate in one of Tokyo’s three “great” festivals. I awoke at 4:30am and took the train to Monzennakacho, a station that is truly at the heart of the Fukagawa Matsuri. Although there was no traffic at this early hour, there was plenty of activity. Hundreds of locals could be seen scurrying around the streets in their happi Japanese tops, white shorts and split-toed shoes. As not just anyone can participate in the festival, I was met by the family who gave me the “introduction” to partake. Each of the giant mikoshi (portable shrines) is associated with a particular district of the local area. There are 53 in total.

Dressed for the festival

After quickly changing in to my costume I gathered with the other participants and we ate onigiri – rice balls with different fillings – and got ready for the days event. At 7:30am we moved down the street to where the mikoshi for our district was set up and waiting for us (see below).

Mikoshi

We carried this float 8 kilometers through Tokyo and back to the local neighborhood.

As our turn came, around 40 of us heaved the 2 ton float up on to our shoulders and began the 8 kilometer walk through Tokyo. Slowly marching through the streets as we chanted “washoi!!” and bounced the float up and down. But what really made this festival a day to remember was the water that was poured on our mikohsi – and us! – as we walked about. Kids and adults alike splashed us from all angles. Any spectator is able to join in on this aspect of the matsuri and so the day ends up feeling like a giant water fight!

IMG_1480Water!

At splash stations like the one above we lift the mikoshi above our heads so that other participants can drench the mikoshi and us below with cold but refreshing water. But the 53 shrines being paraded around are not the only thing that this festival has going. There are multiple places where traditional Japanese music is being played and even several large taiko drumming areas where the loud drums set the pace of the chanting of the shrine bearers like myself. In order to show respect to the musicians we lift the mikoshi above our heads as we pass. There are also floats along the route selling beer and shaved ice for the onlookers, those of us carrying the shrine have to wait till the afternoon.

Taiko drummers at one of many stations along the festival route.

Taiko drummers at one of many stations along the festival route.

We all take turns carrying the float and there is a morning rest stop and a midday break for lunch but even so by the afternoon my shoulders are bruised and battered. And my feet are sore from the massive weight crushing down on them.

Yours truly at the head of the pack. My shoulder and arms sore from a long but fun day.

Yours truly at the head of the pack. My shoulder and arms sore from a long but fun day.

Of course, my personal favorite part of the matsuri is after we finish and I can sit down with my friends for a few well deserved beers.

A long time friend. The man who allowed me to partake in the festival treated me to lots of shochu and beer after we finished. He also brought me some Otoro tuna sashimi from Tsukiji Fish Market to help replenish all the energy spent walking through Tokyo's cordoned off streets.

A long time friend. The man who allowed me to partake in the festival treated me to lots of shochu and beer after we finished. He also brought me some Otoro tuna sashimi from Tsukiji Fish Market to help replenish all the energy spent walking through Tokyo’s cordoned off streets.

Seeing matsuri in Japan is truly a “once in a lifetime” type experience. The friendly and fun-loving nature of such festivals ensures that all are welcome. Aside from some fantastic pictures, you are likely to go home with some new friends as well!

There are thousands of festivals all over japan throughout the year. You may just stumble across a small festival on your travels in Japan, but if they are on and we know about them, we can help you catch a Japanese festival during your trip.

 

Making Sunday very special in Bristol

Here at the Bristol office of InsideJapan Tours we had our very own mini matsuri on Sunday 7th September at Bristol’s Make Sunday Special event. We donned our yukata and jinbei, and with the help of our local friends Yume Kitchen and Kagemusha Taiko set about sharing Japanese culture with the good people of Bristol.

Make Sunday Special

Yuki & James running the chopstick challenge whilst Yume Kitchen get the sushi rolling

Throughout the day, we had performances and workshops from Devon-based Kagemusha Taiko, sushi-making demos and tutorials from Bristol’s own Yume Kitchen, origami lessons, and the mighty chopstick challenge (picking up dried adzuki beans with shiny chopsticks – a challenge indeed!).

Kagemusha Taiko

Kagemusha Taiko

Kagemusha Taiko workshop

Kagemusha Taiko workshop

Making sushi with Yume Kitchen

Making sushi with Yume Kitchen

We chatted about Japan with anyone and everyone who stopped by, and it was wonderful to see how many local people have an interest in Japanese culture and travelling to Japan. Some had already been to Japan, for others it was a lifelong dream, and some just really enjoyed making origami!

Proud paper folders!

Proud paper folders!

InsideJapan Tours has customers from all over the world, and we’re happy to communicate with you all by any possible means, but there’s nothing like a face-to-face conversation. Make Sunday Special was a really good chance for us to meet some great people from the great city of Bristol and talk Japan to all who have an interest in learning a bit more about Japan and it’s unique culture   – thanks for coming along, and we hope to see you at the next event!

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